Thursday, January 06, 2000

Judicial elections may be no contest

8 judgeships, 8 candidates

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Hamilton County voters had no choice when it came to electing judges in 1999, and the new year isn't likely to change that.

        Eight appeals court and common pleas court judgeships are up for election in 2000 and unless one or more challengers emerge before 4 p.m. Friday, there will be only eight candidates — six Republicans and two Democrats.

        It makes some in the legal community question whether there is still any value to electing judges, rather than appointing them.

        “Not having any contested races would seem to be a pretty good argument against the idea that there is an advantage in electing judges,” said Michael Solimine, a University of Cincinnati law school professor who favors a judicial appointment system known as “merit selection.”

        “What good is an election where there is only one candidate on the ballot?” Mr. Solimine said.

        Hamilton County Democrat ic Party co-chairman Tim Burke said his party has simply been unable to come up with any more candidates to run against the three Republican 1st District Court of Appeals judges up for re-election, or for two common pleas court judgeships with Republican incumbents.

        Republican Party leaders have no plans to threaten either of the two Democrats, Appeals Court Judge Robert Gorman or Common Pleas Judge Richard Niehaus.

        It will be similar to last year's Hamilton County Municipal Court election, in which seven incumbents were re-elected without opposition.

        The only possible race where voters could have a choice this year is a field race for two common pleas court judgeships, where the top two vote-getters win.

        There, the Democrats are fielding incumbent Richard Niehaus and the Republicans have Dennis Helmick, now a municipal court judge. If no one else files, they will both win. But David Albanese, a former mu nicipal court judge who now works for Sheriff Simon L. Leis Jr., is considering the race.

        Four appeals court judges — Republicans Mark Painter, Rupert Doan and J. Howard Sundermann; and Democrat Gorman — are not likely to have any opponents.

        Two other common pleas judgeships will also be uncontested, Mr. Burke said. The Democrats have no candidates against Republican incumbents Mark Schweikert and Steve Martin.

        The prospect of a judicial election without opposing candidates is not necessarily a bad thing, said Joe Deters, the Ohio treasurer who is also chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party.

        “It says that there are good judges in Hamilton County, Republican and Democrat,” Mr. Deters said. “If there were bad judges, lawyers would be lining up around the block to run against them.”

        Mr. Deters said that most of the hotly contested judicial races in Hamilton County in recent years came about “because there was a perception that someone was not doing the job and was vulnerable.”

        “It's sort of a merit selection system,” Mr. Deters said.

        True “merit selection” systems are used in 34 states, including Indiana, for some or all judicial offices. Generally, under merit selection, judges are appointed by a panel of lawyers and lay people named by the governor. Instead of facing election every four or six years, judges' names go on the ballot sometime during their terms in a “retention election,” in which voters decide whether to keep those judges. If not, they are out and the selection process starts over.

        Critics of merit selection argue that appointing judges takes away a democratic right voters have to choose their judicial representatives.

        But Mr. Solimine argues that when a political party decides not to field candidates to run against the other party's incumbents, that “right to choose” is already lost.

        “How can anyone say that there is a right to choose when all it takes for a judge to win re-election is that he goes out and votes for himself?” Mr. Solimine said. “When there's no one else on the ballot, all it takes is one vote.”

        Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Ann Marie Tracey, a member of the Ohio Courts Futures Commission, said she believes judges run without opposition “generally because they are doing a good job.”

        If the voters wanted choices, she said, there would be choices.

        “The main reason for lack of opposition is that voters don't get as involved in judicial elections as they do in other elections,” Judge Tracey said. “They aren't as tuned in.”


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